“Be quick, be quiet, and be on time.”

Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson, chief designer at Lockheed’s secret “Skunk Works” facility, initially designed the U-2 around the F-104 Starfighter fuselage. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Earlier this week, we shared a picture from Lockheed Martin’s publicity page on our Facebook page. Each and every one of those jets pictured in the digital rendering were the result of a Lockheed/Lockheed Martin Skunk Works division project, touched by the leadership of famed engineer and aviation designer, Clarence “Kelly” Johnson.

Johnson was born into poverty, the son of Swedish immigrants who toiled day and night to make ends meet in the little mining town of Ishpeming. As Peter Garrison in his Air & Space article on Johnson said, Kelly was a living version of the American dream. With time, the brilliant and feisty young Johnson rose from having to deliver laundry on a small creaky hand wagon around Ishpeming to being one of the most celebrated aviation innovators in history. The only way he managed to accomplish this was through hard work and sheer determination. Indeed, there is no such thing as a shortcut to success, and Johnson knew it. He finished schooling on time and graduated from the University of Michigan- Ann Arbor with a Masters in Aeronautical Engineering; overall, an education that would serve him well in his chosen career. As for his “Kelly” nickname, he earned that in elementary school when other children used to make fun of his first name, Clarence, distorting it to Clara. Little Clarence, fed up with the name-calling, beat up a kid taunting him, and slowly but surely, Clara disappeared while the Kelly nickname stuck. Fast forward 15+ years, Kelly found himself moving through the Lockheed Corporation as a designer. He rose to fame within the company’s ranks for having told one of their chief engineers, Hall Hibbard, that his Model 10 Electra was unsatisfactory and quite inherently dangerous. Hibbard, impressed with Johnson’s analysis of the aircraft and his tenacity put the young man on the Electra team, sending him to conduct wind tunnel tests in the pursuit of redesigning the Model 10 to make it safer. He did so in record time, and was rewarded with being appointed to Lockheed’s engineering staff, a highly sought-after position. From there, Johnson’s career skyrocketed, especially thanks to his mind bogglingly brilliant ideas and innovative designs. He was responsible for bringing about such aircraft as the P-38 Lightning, the venerable Constellation airliners, the F-104 Starfighter, the C-130 Hercules, the U-2 Dragon Lady, and the A-12 and SR-71 spy planes, among others. I could go on and on, but I think I’ve already firmly established and verified Kelly’s resume with those specific aircraft. Fantastic, overachieving jets that did exactly what was required of each and then some.

Sure, science and engineering was what mattered most when developing these aircraft. However, there was another underlying and often under-appreciated factor. Efficient and thorough organization was what made all of the projects undertaken by Johnson come together seamlessly and in record time. I realize that we, at Alert5.net, aren’t about management lessons and executive motivation. We’re about military aviation, and that to that end, I’d like to share with you 14 organizational points crafted by Kelly Johnson that were integral to his leadership strategy as head of Lockheed Martin’s awesome Skunk Works division. You never know, we might have a future Chief Skunk reading this. Whatever it is, Johnson’s 14 points are extremely invaluable tidbits of guidance that greatly influenced the shape of military aviation for years to come.

Have a gander:

1. The Skunk Works manager must be delegated practically complete control of his program in all aspects. He should report to a division president or higher.

2. Strong but small project offices must be provided both by the military and industry.

3. The number of people having any connection with the project must be restricted in an almost vicious manner. Use a small number of good people (10% to 25% compared to the so-called normal systems).

4. A very simple drawing and drawing release system with great flexibility for making changes must be provided.

5. There must be a minimum number of reports required, but important work must be recorded thoroughly.

6. There must be a monthly cost review covering not only what has been spent and committed but also projected costs to the conclusion of the program.

7. The contractor must be delegated and must assume more than normal responsibility to get good vendor bids for subcontract on the project. Commercial bid procedures are very often better than military ones.

8. The inspection system as currently used by the Skunk Works, which has been approved by both the Air Force and Navy, meets the intent of existing military requirements and should be used on new projects. Push more basic inspection responsibility back to subcontractors and vendors. Don’t duplicate so much inspection.

9. The contractor must be delegated the authority to test his final product in flight. He can and must test it in the initial stages. If he doesn’t, he rapidly loses his competency to design other vehicles.

10. The specifications applying to the hardware must be agreed to well in advance of contracting. The Skunk Works practice of having a specification section stating clearly which important military specification items will not knowingly be complied with and reasons therefore is highly recommended.

11. Funding a program must be timely so that the contractor doesn’t have to keep running to the bank to support government projects.

12. There must be mutual trust between the military project organization and the contractor, the very close cooperation and liaison on a day-to-day basis. This cuts down misunderstanding and correspondence to an absolute minimum.

13. Access by outsiders to the project and its personnel must be strictly controlled by appropriate security measures.

14. Because only a few people will be used in engineering and most other areas, ways must be provided to reward good performance by pay not based on the number of personnel supervised.

Rules courtesy of Lockheed Martin.

About Ian D'Costa (240 Articles)
Ian is the editor-in-chief of the Tactical Air Network. His work has been republished and quoted in a number of publications, including The Toronto Star, Airsoc, Business Insider and The Aviationist. You can reach him at idcosta@tacairnet.com.

3 Comments on “Be quick, be quiet, and be on time.”

  1. We stand in awe of people like Kelly and have great deal to be grateful for…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The rules can be adapted to any business field. He was a master of project management.

    Liked by 1 person

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